US Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Iraq today to discuss security issues and arms sales as the two nations look toward the gradual withdrawal of all US forces by the end of 2011.
Gates also will try to help bridge a deep divide between Iraq’s ethnic Kurds and majority Arabs that many fear may undermine security gains, a senior US defence official said.
Gates is to hold talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim.
One of the topics the officials are expected to discuss is Baghdad’s interest in acquiring Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-16 multirole fighter jets to counter possible threats from neighboring nations after US forces leave.
The Pentagon chief will also visit the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, where officials appear to be drifting farther from the Arab-led government in Baghdad in an impasse over oil and disputed land.
Kurds vow to pursue their claims of areas like oil-producing Kirkuk as they assert greater control of hydrocarbon reserves.
The US wants to prevent any clashes that might play into the hands of diehard Sunni insurgents who would style themselves a bulwark against Kurdish encroachment.
Gates will hold talks with Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, which has signed oil deals with foreign firms that Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani deems illegal.
“We’re very much positioned now as kind of an honest broker,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said US forces in northern Iraq were playing an important “confidence-building” role in disputes involving Kurdish security forces stationed outside Kurdistan.
“The Arab-Kurd dimension is probably the most pressing one at the moment in terms of the issues that really need to get dealt with to consolidate our security gains,” he said.
Arms sales, normalising ties
Gates hopes to build on talks last week between Maliki and US President Barack Obama in Washington seeking to establish what both countries have called “more normal” bilateral ties as US forces stand down in Iraq.
Part of this is the billions of dollars Iraq is expected to spend on arms. Baghdad wanted to buy an initial squadron of 18 F-16s this year, with a goal to acquire as many as 96 through 2020, Lieutenant General Anwar Ahmed, head of the Iraqi Air Force, told Reuters in March, citing fears of Iran and Syria.
“We’ve said that we think it’s a good idea that they go with a multi-role fighter that it be ours,” the US official said.
“We think that it’s also in Iraq’s interest to buy their weapons from as few suppliers as possible, because you’re talking about logistics, maintenance, and interoperability.”
The US Congress has already been told of potential arms sales to Iraq worth some $9 billion (R70 billion), including General Dynamics Corp’s M1A1 tank, armed helicopters from either Boeing Co or Textron Inc, and Lockheed’s C-130J cargo plane.
France, China and Russia are among countries that have sold Iraq arms in the past.
Qader told US defence officials at a Pentagon meeting last week that Iraq had conversations with “other folks” about multirole fighters, the US official said.
Gates arrived in Iraq after visits to Israel and Jordan.
At the Tallil air base south of Baghdad, he was to be briefed on US plans to transform combat units into advisory forces that will train and mentor Iraqi security forces.
Under a plan announced by Obama in February, US combat brigades must withdraw Iraq in August 2010. Combat troops already withdrew from urban bases at the end of last month.
Pic: Robert Gates US Defence Secretary